Photos (c) WittyPixel Photography
Last fall, Fosse Jack and I ran into each other at a coffee shop and got caught up in talking about upcoming projects – like you do in show business. I asked him if he was ever going to get around to doing a show he’d told me about nearly two years prior when we ran into each other at the Noc Noc at a Sinner Saint Burlesque show. Back then, he’d told me about a concept called The Tennessee Tease, a fully scripted, fully choreographed burlesque show exploring the works of Tennessee Williams. In 2012, this seemed like a cool idea that was utterly unlike what Seattle burlesque was doing at the time. But when we met again last fall, The Tennessee Tease was more than an idea: Fosse had a folder full of music he wanted to choreograph to, dog-eared pages in a copy of Williams’ memoirs that he intended to use as his guide for crafting a frame narrative about Williams’ life and works, and a few “dream” performers he wanted to work with.
With his artistic vision for the show laid out on the table, I agreed to come aboard to produce for three reasons: 1. I liked the idea of working on a project that fused burlesque and theatre, especially as a fan of Tennessee Williams. 2. I liked that the vision for the show wasn’t just about doing the plays, but about honoring Williams’ life as a gay writer. 3. I liked most of all that Fosse envisioned a role specifically for an older burlesque performer, what we like to call a “Legend.”
In burlesque, a “Legend” is a woman (or man) who performed on professional burlesque circuits during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As an art form, burlesque has a unique and wonderful connection to its history because of the way it reveres Legends. Where Hollywood stops putting women in films past the age of 40, burlesque encourages older women to step back out onstage, to speak about their time in burlesque, and make the history of burlesque as a professional art form visible.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame, the world’s only historical organization dedicated to burlesque, plays a major role in keeping Legends an active part of the burlesque community. Each year, The Burlesque Hall of Fame holds a weekend-long “reunion” in Las Vegas, during which the Miss Exotic World competition also takes place. At BHoF, as it’s popularly known, Legends are invited out to attend and mingle with contemporary burlesque performers, and reunite with their old friends from their performance days. There is also one evening each weekend that features only performances by Legends, and it is truly one of the most feminist spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.
To see a woman over 60 onstage is rare in and of itself, but to see a woman over 60 onstage taking her clothes off is entirely another. Older women are rendered invisible in a number of ways, and their invisibility is often tied to a perceived lack of sexuality (and sexual availability). When Legends take the stage at BHoF, they inhabit their sexuality and perform sexual desirability for audiences in ways that are not encouraged or allowed outside of burlesque spaces, and being in the audience to witness that is a powerful, powerful thing.
So when Fosse told me that he wanted local burlesque Legend Eartha Quake to perform a striptease as Miss Edwina, Tennessee Williams’ mother, I knew that this was a project I wanted to be a part of. We held an open audition for every other role in the show, but knew we wanted Eartha and somehow convinced her to work with us on this project. In addition to the striptease piece that Fosse choreographed for her, she is also performing her first speaking role ever in a scene from The Rose Tattoo. “I have never had any speaking parts and I am very happy this is the show to “pop that cherry”, Eartha said. Even though she confessed that she was very nervous to try an acting role, Eartha’s long history in show business has served her well – she was the first person in the cast to be completely off book for her scene.
Eartha’s scene partner is a brand new burlesque artist by the name of Belle Bizarre. A recent graduate from Cherry Manhattan’s Burlesque for Actors class at Cornish, Belle is making her professional burlesque debut in this production. It has been really lovely to watch a very young burlesque performer work alongside a Legend, and see how they’ve been influencing one another. Belle has lots of theatre training, but little burlesque experience and Eartha is her polar opposite in this regard. Yet, they’re both learning from each other as they work through the scene, and that’s one of my favorite aspect of this process, and of burlesque in general. Working on shows with other creative, talented women, and learning from them, is such a key part of the DIY feminist movements of the late 1990s from which neo-burlesque arose, and it’s great to see that spirit carried over into the hybrid theatrical burlesque we’re doing in The Tennessee Tease.
Although burlesque is a feminist art form through which history is made visible, the canonical performance of the works of Tennessee Williams often renders the author’s own sexuality invisible. Williams’ memoirs make his sexuality abundantly clear, but his theatrical writing doesn’t represent this aspect of his life – largely because writing queer texts in the mid-century wouldn’t have been an advisable, or even possible, career move for Williams.
But the memoirs, published in 1975, are much more explicit about Williams’ lives and loves, detailing his interest in young hustlers (played by drag king Al Lykya) and his great love, Frank Merlo (played by choreographer Fosse Jack). Because we’ve adapted our frame narrative from the memoirs, The Tennessee Tease is able to stage the queer realities of Williams life in ways that his plays cannot and do not. As our Blanche DuBois (played by Olatsa Assassin) notes, “This is a play that features a larger than usual cast of gay men, played by gay men, and it lacks stereotyping.” Rather, Williams’ memories of his lovers provide true portraits of these men as they lived, devoid of any of the stereotypical tropes of queerness that existed in the mid-century (and even now). Cast member Apollo Vidra, who plays both Tom from The Glass Menagerie and a young Tennessee Williams, enjoys performing his duet with Fosse Jack the most out all of his roles in the show. “Playing Tom honestly has been a lifelong dream of mine, as my favorite Tennessee Williams character,” he says. “However, it’s the Frankie/Tenn number that’s really speaking to me in this show. Burlesque is usually so interactive and transgressive in the best of ways, but this number speaks something totally different. It’s vulnerable and intimate . . . The piece feels like making love for the first time.”
So much of Tennessee Williams’ works are about people falling in and out of love with one another, and I fall in love with Williams – and with what burlesque can be – every time we rehearse this show.